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Learn about the soldier’s life at this weekend’s Camp of Instruction

Ned Jilton • Mar 4, 2020 at 3:00 PM

“Each company has its tents in two files, facing on a street perpendicular to the color line. The width of the street depends on the front of the camp, but should not be less than 5 paces. The interval between the ranks of tents is 2 paces; between the files of tents of adjacent companies, 2 paces; between regiments, 22 paces.” — Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861.

If I am quoting from a Civil War era regulation manual, that can mean only one thing. It’s time for the annual Camp of Instruction for reenactors in our region.

The Camp of Instruction is where new recruits learn the drills and old veterans sharpen their skills for the reenacting season. But it is also a chance for the history enthusiast to ask a ton of questions and learn about the day-to-day life of the soldier.

This year’s camp will be held this weekend at Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats. In addition to the standard learning of the manual of arms and marching, there will be an emphasis on camp life.

Why camp life?

Think about this. If you were in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in 1863, you might have spent a total of nine days in battle for the year. The other 350-plus days were spent on the march and in camp.

This year, the reenactors will be doing battalion drill and bayonet drills, along with things such as sick call, guard-mount and other activities with the focus being life in a winter camp prior to the beginning of a summer campaign season.

Out of curiosity, I went back to the 1861 manual to see what it said about guard-mount. The orders the officers are to give and what the soldiers manning the guard are to do take up almost four pages.

A brief excerpt: “At the first call for guard-mounting, the men warned for duty turn out on their company parades for inspection by the First Sergeants; and at the second call, repair to the regimental or garrison parade, conducted by the First Sergeants. Each detachment, as it arrives, will, under the direction of the Adjutant, take post on the left of the one that preceded it, in open order, arms shouldered and bayonets fixed.”

Remember, there are three more pages of orders and movements after that.

Guard-mount can be impressive, such as when it is done at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or Buckingham Palace. But it’s easy to get crossed up just reading the manual, which is what makes the Camp of Instruction so important. Having an experienced person walk you through the process makes a big difference.

Getting back to those regulations in the opening. They weren’t written by some officer looking to see how picky he could be. They were written for efficiency and safety.

The spacing of the tents allows the soldiers to move through camp quickly day or night without tripping. Further sections of the regulations note where the officers, doctors and quartermasters are to be located so someone arriving at camp can quickly find them. There are also rules on the location of cook fires to avoid setting a tent, or possibly the whole camp, on fire.

Then there’s paragraph 522 in the manual I have, which says, “The sinks of the men are 150 paces in front of the color line — those of the officers 100 paces in rear of the train. Both are concealed by bushes. When convenient, the sinks of the men may be placed in rear or on a flank. A portion of the earth dug out for sinks to be thrown back occasionally.”

The failure of some officers to follow that regulation and to properly place the sinks — toilet facilities — resulted in widespread sickness that killed almost as many soldiers as bullets.

The Camp of Instruction has always been important to soldiers and reenactors as they learn how to stay healthy and safe as well as to carry out their duties. And the camp this weekend at Rocky Mount gives everyone, including those just interested in history, the chance to see how it was done.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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